Postal Hatchet Man?

May 27, 1992

During his four years as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Marvin T. Runyon Jr. earned the nickname "Carvin' Marvin" for hacking away at the federally owned electric utility's vast bureaucracy. By the time he was finished, 14,000 of TVA's 35,000 workers had been discharged. Now that the 70-year-old Mr. Runyon has been named postmaster general, does the same fate await the U.S. Postal Service?

Mr. Runyon may not be the postal hatchet man that some fear. For one thing, the groundwork has already been laid for a gradual downsizing of the huge postal bureaucracy (work force: 750,000) by outgoing chief Anthony M. Frank. He oversaw a transition to automation that now has close to 70 percent of all mail bar-coded by machinery. That step alone will require less mail-sorting by hand and could lead to a reduction of 47,000 jobs. Machinery that can read handwriting is expected to arrive in 1995, leading to even more job cuts.

So "Carvin' Marvin" is more likely to focus on the agency's bloated management layers. Big savings could be found by shrinking management as it is made more responsive to the public and to workers. Mr. Runyon also can be expected to try to implement the same kind of participatory management style that he oversaw in the 1980s as president of Nissan Motor's American operations.

At the TVA, Mr. Runyon put an end to a 10-year pattern of electricity rate increases. Can he now stabilize postal rates? The outlook isn't favorable. The agency's net income for the first half of the current fiscal year is nearly a quarter-billion dollars below projections.

Automation and a more efficient but smaller management could hold the key. Salaries and benefits consume 80 cents out every postal dollar. Mr. Runyon's challenge, similar to Mr. Frank's, is to turn the Postal Service more in the direction of a private-sector business to meet customer demands without raising rates. Carvin' Marvin has his work cut out for him.

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